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Child mortality: A tragedy that we should learn from

Poverty is one of the most talked about issues in the world— you’ll get 64 million hits when you do a Google search on “poverty.” But recent research suggests there is a lot more to know about this topic.

At the Chronic Poverty Research Centre conference held recently, many new ideas were raised. One especially caught my attention.

Economist Angus Deaton (who is the expert in poverty measurement and household income surveys) talked about using global poverty lines to count the number of poor people worldwide.  A poverty line is simply a minimum value of income deemed necessary to live an adequate standard of living.

Countries will have their own poverty lines — in the UK a household of four living on £279 per week or less after housing cost, income and council taxes is considered low-income. But for global comparisons the most commonly used one is the dollar-a-day poverty line.

By counting how many people live on less than one dollar a day, with the dollar adjusted for price differences across countries, we can come up with a worldwide poverty figure.  Some use this global count to compare poverty across countries; others to advance their argument for allocating more aid towards one country or region.

Deaton explained how it’s difficult to compare prices and consumption across different places.  Anyone who has been to say, Ethiopia, knows it’s difficult to compare the poor in the UK to the poor living over there. Ways to calculate poverty lines have to be improved to better reflect living standards in different places.  He also argued for wider use of self-reporting surveys (eg. the Gallup polls) at the global level.

At one point he mentioned that other indicators — such as child mortality — might have more meaning when measuring world poverty.  I couldn’t agree more with that point.  Child mortality does not only mean the same everywhere, but it also reflects multiple deprivations.  It indicates that the child’s parents were likely earning low incomes, they were eating food with low levels of nutrients and their parents might have been unable to seek healthcare.  High rates of child mortality could also be linked to wider challenges, such as their parents’ lack of education or because of their mum’s low status – something that many women in the world experience.

Using child mortality rates together with other indicators of well-being to compare poverty across countries gives a better picture of deprivation.  It also implies that poverty reduction should go beyond increasing income to, importantly, improving access to basic services and opening up more opportunities.

What child mortality rates cannot tell us at a first glance though is whether the problem is a lack of resources, or an inequitable distribution of resources, or both.  I have highlighted India’s case of example in a recent paper.

It is one of the fastest growing economies, yet it has higher child mortality rates than neighbouring Bangladesh and, even within the country, the rates of children’s survival vary greatly. Thus, it’s important to regularly monitor child mortality rates broken down by household wealth, gender and geographic location to increase resources where they are lacking and to close disparities.

We should advocate for giving equal importance to using child mortality rates when comparing international poverty. The loss of a child’s life means the same everywhere and reflects the multiple deprivations that they likely faced.

It also shows how complex the task of saving children’s lives is. Improving children’s survival chances requires more than simple increases in per capita income. Improving access to basic services and opening up more opportunities for their families is also crucial.

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